This Thing Called Courage

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Rest in peace Biscuit




IT HARDLY SEEMS POSSIBLE, but it was one year ago today that I said goodbye to my best friend and little soul mate, Biscuit. While I have loved all the dogs I have been honored and gifted to have come into my life, there was something about Biscuit that transformed the usual dog-human bound into something profound and life-altering. It still is a mystery to me how ten pounds of aging flesh and bone and fur so captured my heart.

The funny thing is, I had never cared at all for little dogs before. To me they were their own bitchy sub-species, Canis gaborus maybe (after Zsa-Zsa), fussy, poofy, yappering little pom-poms of over-excitement and self-absorption that did not belong anywhere near the same genus as the sloppy, happy, devoted editions of man's-best-friend I had stewarded previous to this: Jake; Rocky; and Fluffy, each of a size that, when their tails wagged indoors, they were likely to sweep any and all knick-knacks off adjacent coffee and end tables: and then of course they would jump and bolt at the sudden and inexplicablke noise behind them. Cause and effect was completely beyond them. I loved them dearly, and wept when they left me, especially Riocky, for he was as sweet a soul as one could imagine. But Biscuit...

Even now it's so hard to write about him-- not because of the loss I still feel keenly, but because our relationship, the love, compassion, and joy he personified and conjured up in me, seems something beyond the realm of normal experience. It lies somewhere in the numinous, and words can only point in this direction, never accurately describe. "I have written about Denis last not because he was least important, but because he was the hardest, the most difficult," Karen Blixen wrote in Out of Africa, describing the trouble she had in putting down details of her relationship with Denis Finch-Hutton on paper.

And so it is with Biscuit.

When I first met him he wasn't in very good shape. He had been found wandering the streets of Manhattan, if one can imagine. Picked up by the local authorities, he was taken to the Center for Animal Care and Control, an Andersonville of a place that houses thousands of dogs swept off the streets of New York City. The dogs are kept for 24 hours-- if no one claims them, they are summarily put down. He was enemic from the number of tics on him; he had kennel cough and mange and bad teeth; someone had kicked him in the jaw; he was of advanced years. And yet when our eyes met-- he was trembling like a leaf-- something turned within me, and the tsunami of compassion that each of us-- a virtue paved over in many cases by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the death-by-a-thousand-cuts that most of us have suffered along the way-- came pouring forth. It seemed everything worthy of our compassion, every single thing that has suffered in this life, every thing that wanted to live, and yet died, for lack of a little TLC-- was gathered in his liquidy, well-deep eyes. He had no reason to think I would be any different from the thousands of others who had passed him by or abused him. And yet, the thing in his eyes as they locked onto mine was undoubtedly a besesching plea. Other than the fact that he had been abused, and found wandering the streets, they knew nothing about him. A red, heart-shaped tag dangling from his collar read, 'Biscuit.' They guessed he might be eight or nine years old.

"Let me ask you something, Mister Hayes," my Vet asked me when I brought Biscuit to him that first day. He was a gentleman from Pakistan. "What would possess you to adopt an animal so advanced in age, with so many health issues?"
I paused, to hear it put so bluntly. The truth of the matter was that I didn't have any choice whatsoever. "Well," I finally answered, "I figure his life up to this point has been a shit sandwich. They say he's about eight, and I know little dogs can live to be 15, 16, or older, and so I'd like him to know for the second part of his life how good life can be when you're loved."
"Ah, I see," the Vet answered. "Very well then, we see what we can do."
I was told that Biscuit would be available to be picked up the following morning. But that night, at 10:00, the Vet called and said if I wanted I could pick him up then, that he had 'come out of it' quicker than he anticipated. "He has quite an indomitable little spirit," the Vet noted. When I reached the Vet's office, Biscuit was walking around the room in circles, panting, and bumping into things.
"He's walking off the anasthesia," the Vet explained. He also told me not to become alarmed if Biscuit's breathing became even more labored during the night. That would be the anasthesia too. I could give him water at 4 am, but not before.

His breathing did become more labored once we got home, rattley even, and Biscuit seemed rather frantic. Not knowing what else to do, I scooped him into my arms, walked the floor with him, and sang an impromptu composition entitled, The Biscuit Song: I love Biscuit, Biscuit loves me, and on that we both agree...
Repeated over and over. He seemed to like it. I was reminded of me and Jamie Fitz ten thousand years earlier in Ms. Stahl’s Advanced French Class at BC High. She introduced us to the Existentialists. We were wise and precocious and seventeen. After soccer in the shower Jamie would always forget his towel and borrow mine, and I never had shampoo and would borrow his; I’d always say, “Sure you can have my towel, just lemme finish drying my bum crack first,” and one time all slicky and wet and him beside me I read the directions aloud on the bottle of his Head and Shoulders shampoo after he’d tossed it to me: apply generous amount, lather, rinse, repeat. And we agreed how this was a perfect Existentialist construct worthy of Satre, how somewhere, a poor literalist was forever trapped in their shower, lathering, rinsing, and repeating ad infinitum, because it said repeat rather than stop, stupid, after you do it twice. And here I was singing The Bisky Song over and over and over, and over; but unlike most of the existentialists I knew, I was blissfully happy now, because his breathing by and by became even. At length he placed his small head upon my shoulder, emitted a deep, purr-like noise of contentment, and feel asleep. And I cried. It was like winning something.

When he woke up later that day, Biscuit was an astonishingly new animal. I fed him three times that day and every day for the next week or so; he put on weight quickly. Soon he had the ability to leap up onto my bed from an absolutely still position, and wake me with his tiny tongue applied liberally to any part of my skin sticking out of the covers. The following week I brought him to ‘Happy Land,’ our name for the Middlesex Fells Reservation, which was and is too long an appellation to say to a dog. It was a morning in May that one dreams about all the winters of one's life. I carried him out into the middle of a vast emerald field, and, he being a city dog, set him down for what I assumed was the first time in an endless sea of open green, drenched in the sweet tangle of mid-May.
I placed him on the grass, unhooked his leash, and stood back. He sniffed at the ground, then slowly looked up, looked around. For once in my life I remembered the camera, and if anyone doubts that dogs smile, I’d be happy to show you the picture of the biggest one in canine history. He was off like a shot then to the far horizon, little legs working like furious pistons of bliss, but he stopped on the dime every few seconds to turn around and make sure Daddy was running just as joyously behind him.
I have been fortunate enough in this life to hear my name whispered with love in the middle of the night; to see the light in the eyes of loving family; to see lives turned around and launched into the stratosphere when sobriety has been found; but I must say that few sights have given me more happiness than that one: a left-for-dead ten pound bag of skin and fur at the very zenith of ecstasy.
He came with me everywhere, and when he couldn’t, when I traveled, the resultant phone bill must have made Alexander Bell smile in some far off cushy afterworld. The occasional sneers or funny looks I would get from subcontractors when I would walk and feed and fuss over Biscuit at my landscaping jobs were as nothing, and usually a dirty look in return ended the matter; when ‘Bisky’ couldn’t come to work with me, when we were working in unfenced or trafficy places, my old roommate told me Biscuit would sit on my bed, staring out the window the live-long day, immovable as Buddha under the Banyan; until ten hours later when the telltale rattle of my truck bombed down the driveway.
Oh, and then what a change! He would snap up to a Rin-Tin-Tin pose, his every fiber and hair a conduit of Code Red full alertness: he would wait until I climbed the Matterhorn of the back steps, push open the kitchen door, and then stop and give him my funny little whistle: then I would hear the plop as he leapt off the bed, the squeals of delight as he raced down the hall, and then finally the almost-comical thud as those four little feet took the turn into the kitchen at such a speed that inevitably the smooth linoleum would sprawl him onto his rear and he would slide across the kitchen floor, his little bum whacking into the cabinets-- which, of course, had big fat living-room couch cushions propped against them to soften the blow. Then, regaining his composure, and laughing now (as opposed to smiling) he would leap into my arms as I spun him round and round, singing Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home! Daddy Daddy Daddy’s Home!
To say it plainly: I could come in that door at the end of the day having lost every penny, every friend, every job, every lover, every bit of my reputation, and it wouldn’t have mattered an iota: it was not possible for Biscuit to love me any more than he did. I frequently did come through that door sunburned, exhausted, discouraged, lonely, fearful, half-crazy—Momma said they’d be days like that, but they didn’t make days hard enough that a wave of the magic wand of Biscuit’s tail couldn’t banish. The spiritual writer Matthew Fox says that what we can learn most from dogs is their ability to enter into ecstasy at a moment's notice. We are all called to bliss, but, upon wakening, most of us tack on the weary load of the day before: I'd love to be happy, but see I have this problem... Dogs don't do that. A simple Do you want to go to Happy Land? elicited such unadulterated ecstasy that it would have made a dead-man laugh to see the little eyes widen like fried eyes, the mouth open, the happy panting, the joyous leaping, the rush for the leash. And no matter how many times we went there, it was ALWAYS the first time for him-- and thus, for me as well.
He was very independent; although I was the world to him, he could only be cuddled when he wanted to be cuddled-- most times when he settled down, he preferred to be in a place close to Daddy, where he could keep a good eye on me, but not right against Daddy. He had a funny way of walking, sticking out his front paws in a kind of Cockney swagger. Terrfified of car rides at first, we eventually acclimated him to the point where he took full joyous possession of a dog's inherent right to shove his head out the car window and breath in the unspooling, never-ending trail of delight to be found there. He loved going to the Cape, Provincetown that is, to wit 'Uncle' Dermot's. Our first venturing there was not entirely successful. We arrived to find an empty house and a note from Dermot and Renato that they were walking along Commercial Street and we should try and find them; we did, to no avail. We came back home and we had missed them again. I waited for a bit, then showered and headed out for the evening, leaving Biscuit to 'keep house.' When I returned some time later Dermot was sitting, ponderously, on his front porch steps. Biscuit was on the other side of the screen door, acting Cerebrus.
"You're dog won't let me in my house," Dermot announced. He was not amused, and who could blame him. Biscuit had this thing he did-- not exactly a bark and not exactly a snap-forth lunge, but something of the both combined-- that could, I suppose, be disconcerting to the non-dog fancier. Still I found it hard to restrain from laughing: Dermot is a big man, of ponderous mien and stentorian vocality, as befits the gravitas of his profession; and the image of him trying to get into his own house,and being turned back by ten pounds of attitude, was one of those things you really shouldn't laugh at...but must. But in time he came to an accepted member of that wonderfully hospitable household-- but we learnbed to stay away from P-Town during Women's Week, for the stampeding throngs that would converge on us, looking for a closer encounter with the cutest dog that ever was.
Surely, he was that.
But Biscuit was an older dog, although you’d never guess it—and after four and a half years, he began showing it. And all the love in the world couldn’t stop what was happening.

His eyesight went first, slowly—and then more quickly, after an infection almost ruptured his cornea; then the arthritis came, first in the back legs, then in the front. The meds for that helped a little, but not enough that I didn’t have to carry him up and down the stairs. He couldn’t jump up on the bed anymore, although for a while he discovered a shortcut via the much shorter love seat beside the bed; but even that, in time, proved an insurmountable K2. As his pursuits became more limited, more he more he just wanted to be with his Dad. Whenever I left the house, he waited by the door, unmoving til I returned.

The mind started going a little after that—be began wandering when I wasn’t there, and I would come home to find him sometimes behind a chair, or facing a corner, not knowing enough to turn around. But still when I came to him, when I held him against my chest, there would be that deep sigh of contentment, the almost purr-like rattle of the safety that somehow I provided him. But undoubtedly it was getting to be His Time.

I began having That conversation more and more with my vet, a different gentleman for the past few years than our original caretaker. “He’ll let you know when it’s his time,” he said. Biscuit still ate with prodigious relish—in fact if anything his appetite increased, and if I was lost in a novel or story when the magic dinner hour of 1:30 came, he would shuffle into my room and remind me. I stopped traveling; he couldn’t abide the car anymore, becoming wild-eyed, terrified, and incontinent, and I refused to board him at a kennel, knowing how traumatized he’d be. Still he ate eagerly every day, and wanted, now, just to be with me—and he would stare with his soul-deep eyes, as if to comfort me for what was coming. I decided that the day he stopped eating would be the day I would do what had to be done.

On Sunday night, March 27, 2005, I heard a sound that, at first, I thought was a police siren going by. It wasn’t—it was Biscuit, and it was a kind of shriek. He repeated it once more during that sleepless night; the next day he didn’t eat. I waved the pan of turkey burger and brown rice under his nose; he looked up at me, and made the shriek sound again.
He was letting me know.

I could barely read the numbers on the dial as I called the Vet. “Bring him right in,” he said. The car ride over—no, I still can’t write about that. It’s the right thing to do, it’s the right thing to do was the mantra that got us over there in one piece. That and the Grace of God.

They couldn’t have been nicer, the Vet and his assistant. The long-dreaded hour was now upon me, and I laid Biscuit on his side upon the table in the most surreal moment of my life. Stainless steel, that table, but with a human touch of warm cloth on top: his favorite blankie. As he had done so often, Biscuit searched the room with his failing eyes; I leaned over and held him; they stopped roaming when they met mine. He heaved a prodigious sigh. His eyes stayed fixed on mine.

The Vet administered the shot; I stroked Biscuit’s back with both hands, and with cracking voice began singing The Biscuit Song: I love Biscuit/Biscuit Loves Me/And on that we both agree…

“Could you hand me my stethoscope please?” the Vet asked his assistant. He placed two ends in his ears and the other against Biscuit’s stilling chest. He raised kind blue eyes to me.
It was 5:25 in the evening. “His heart's stopped,” he gently said. The sobs that came out of me then were the hurting kind, the kind that rip and gasp as they claw up from your gut, strange and painful things and yet knowing all along exactly what they are about.

“We’ll leave you alone for as long as you need,” the Vet said, as he and his assistant retreated and shut the door.

I leaned into the table as close as I could, my two arms still around him. His nostrils were quivering ever so slightly. They say that hearing is the last sense to go. I pressed my mouth against the little ears and picked up where I had left off: The Biscuit Song, over and over: lather, rinse, repeat.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
But this time, I was as miserable as any existentialist.

Goodbye, Precious Biscuit. And thank you.

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